By Teresa Moss
Las Vegas Sun
LAS VEGAS — Harry Fagel spiraled into depression and alcohol abuse following his retirement from Metro Police after 25 years with the department.
Fagel said nightmares disrupted his sleep and his disposition strained his marriage. Simply put: He didn’t know what his identity was without the job.
And in retirement, unlike his tenure on the force, he had plenty of free time to process the trauma he’d seen in his career.
“I’ve been on calls where a father cut his daughter’s head off and I went back to work a half and an hour after that,” Fagel said. “I was back to doing stuff.”
Fagel had always been an advocate for therapy — seeking treatment after exposure to traumatic events throughout his career. But as he sunk deeper into PTSD after retirement, Fagel knew a more intensive treatment was needed.
“My therapist helped me rebuild my identity, and I can’t tell you what an incredibly powerful and satisfying thing that is in my life now,” Fagel said.
Bill Gibbs, manager of Metro Police’s Police Employee Assistance Program, said the agency had lost 18 officers in the line of duty and 39 officers to suicide since it started keeping data in 1983.
“The biggest threat to any police officer is himself or herself over the environment that they are working in,” Gibbs said during a PTSD in law enforcement panel this month at the Mob Museum.
“What’s the bigger threat?” Gibbs asked and then answered, “Not taking care of ourselves.”
The personal assistance program managed by Gibbs was established to help officers through crisis intervention and referral to counseling services. His first experience with the program came after he was involved in an officer-involved shooting in 2011.
Gibbs said he shot a suspect who had already shot a woman and was shooting at passersby on the roadway when they pointed their gun at another officer.
“You are thinking ‘Boy, I think I did the right thing,'” Gibbs told the panel. “… But then detectives start showing up and they are pointing where it happened and they are pointing at you, and you are thinking, ‘Wait a minute, I think I did the right thing.’ Your mind is racing.”
Then someone working with the Police Employee Assistance Program (PEAP) arrived, Gibbs said.
“I knew about PEAP. That’s for the guys who can’t do this for a living. They are too weak,” Gibbs said of his first thoughts. “He put his hands on my shoulders and said, ‘Are you alright? Do you need a drink of water? You don’t have to stay here.’ ”
But they cared for his well-being during the investigation and made such an impression that he wanted to become part of the program.
While the resource is a first step for connecting officers to help, more can be done, and Metro is in the process of looking for new strategies, Gibbs said.
This includes hiring a full-time on-staff clinician to work with officers, he said. Currently the department contracts clinicians but doesn’t have any on staff. He said the Los Angeles Police Department has 16 clinicians employed by the department.
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Sheriff Kevin McMahill, who took office in January, has said the creation of a healthier culture, including mental health, is a top priority for him. Upon taking the helm at Metro, he started a Wellness Bureau to meet this goal.
“They haven’t done anything super big with it yet but that’s because they are researching best practices across the country,” Gibbs said.
One of the battles law enforcement agencies face is a longtime culture that puts a stigma on seeking mental health treatment, Gibbs and Fagel said.
“Back in the day, you worked in an atmosphere with a lot of macho folks and testerone, and if you were struggling, maybe you shouldn’t do the job,” Gibbs said. “That idea is starting to flip.” Gibbs noted that no one had ever been fired or terminated from the department because they were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. A large percentage of officers receives treatment and those officers are able to continue on with their career with no setbacks, he said.
If an officer admits to suicidal thoughts, he said, they are taken off the streets, evaluated, placed in treatment and then can return to work once cleared by the clinician.
Trudy Gilbert-Eliot, a clinician contracted by Metro Police, said the younger generation of police officers was more open to seeking treatment earlier in their career. Gilbert-Eliot said often it isn’t one specific event that triggers the need for treatment but the continued daily trauma for law enforcement officers.
“They are learning skills early on,” Gilbert-Eliot said. “If you gain more skills to deal with a very long career of absorbing that trauma, you have a good shot of ending up in a good place at the end of that career.”
Gilbert-Eliot said her first step was asking patients to tell her the story.
“I’m listening for guilt, for regret, judgment of self,” Gilbert-Eliot said. “If I hear those things, I know what direction I’m going in treatment.”
People can embed distortions into their own memories, and that’s why it is important that the memory is said out loud, she said.
“We are helping people to see how they packaged up that story in a way that might actually be doing harm to them,” Gilbert-Eliot said. “And so we want to take it out and we want to look at it and repackage it in a way that speaks to their strength and speaks to their overcoming and speaks to their resiliency instead.”
Nevada State Police Sgt. Travis Smaka said during the panel that he felt a lot of guilt and regret immediately after the Oct. 1, 2017, mass shooting on the Strip as one of the first law enforcement officers to respond.
One of his first acts of the night was to lead a truck full of victims to a hospital as traffic and roads became over congested.
“How long was I on that highway?” Smaka said he thought in the days after. “I should have gotten around that truck sooner. I should have done this.”
Some of his guilt eased after talking to a therapist, he said. Most of it was lifted after learning everyone in the truck survived.Yet, it was the people he couldn’t help that still weighed on him.
Hours after the mass shooting, Smaka said he was approached by another pickup truck.
“There is this woman wrapped tightly in a sheet and her husband’s clutching onto her with everything he’s got,” Smaka said. “You can see his arm shaking.”
The truck had been circling the Las Vegas area trying to find someone to take the woman’s body. At the time, emergency response was focused only on transporting those who could be saved.
“I’m staring at this man,” Smaka said. “We made eye contact. It will always haunt me because I’ve prided myself in having the right thing to say. I can handle problems. I’m staring at this guy, and I don’t know what to say to him. He’s lost everything in his life and I’m staring at him like an idiot. I’ve never felt so useless in my career. I wanted so badly to bring this poor man some comfort and I had nothing for him.”
A lasting battle
Steven Hough, co-founder and chief operating officer of First H.E.L.P, started tracking law enforcement suicides nationally in 2019. He was inspired to start the effort after being shot in the face in the line of duty in 2010.
“I loved the agency I was working for, but they had no clue how to take care of someone injured on the job,” Hough said in an interview. “Guys like me, we were brought up in the generation of ‘Hey look, you don’t talk about these things. You don’t talk about your feelings or your emotional health.'”
In 2023, Hough’s organization has tracked 36 law enforcement suicides. There were 159 in 2022, 143 in 2021 and 146 in 2020.
The information is self-reported and likely because of stigma, the data is underreporting the actual numbers, he said.
“There are still agencies that denounce people who take their own lives,” Hough said. “We also see agencies that try to do the right thing but say it was an on-duty incident.”
Many of the people his organization works with, he feels, developed PTSD not from one critical event but the day-to-day duties.
“A lot of us come into this profession thinking we can make a change and do some good,” Hough said. “We realize the best we can do is hold it down day to day. We see the same guy arrested three times for domestic violence or drugs and see the court system not doing their job. It leaves us believing that there is no hope.”
Hough said agencies like Metro are ahead of the game with support programs, but often rural departments struggle to provide similar resources.
Through corporate sponsorship, Hough’s organization visits departments and provides training to first responders, command staff and families with how to spot stress and ways to respond.
“There are a number of things going on to combat those issues, but it is still a long-term fight,” Hough said.
During the panel event, Fagel said law enforcement agencies should be looking for ways to incorporate mental health treatment into everyday life. He said it should start at the training academies and continue into retirement.
“If you spend a career helping out other people but at the end of your career you take your own life or you are a miserable drunk or you’re unhappy and your life is destroyed, than what was the point in helping all those people if you can’t help yourself?” he said.
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